Right now, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the life-defining question swirling around in the minds of every high school senior in America: “What am I going to do with my life?” And I bet the newly confirmed US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is hearing those questions too, as he begins his tenure. There is no shortage of answers to that question being offered by parents, teachers, counselors, mentors, and friends: “4-year college” “Trade school” “Community college” “Military” “Gap year.” But I say they’re all missing something — well-intentioned, yes, but lacking in vision. Why aren’t we inspiring our kids with all their possible destinations, not just the next part of the journey there? If we really want our next generation to succeed, then we must help them see the full spectrum of possibilities they should prepare for. And entrepreneurship must be at the top of that list.
Small business owners are the workforce that creates the workforce, but we don’t encourage students to aspire to that at the level we should. Entrepreneurship needs to be highlighted as a viable path by our K-12 education system, alongside higher education and trades training. Otherwise, we will keep bottlenecking the talent pipeline and maintain the unemployment and underemployment status quo.
I am the Founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, the largest entrepreneur support organization on the East Coast that creates access to capital for Black and Brown women founders. How do we do it? With foresight, passion, and capital. Black Girl Ventures holds unique pitch competitions that use crowdfunding and pitching to grant capital to Black and Brown women founders. To date, more than 5,000 women founders have participated in our pitch competition which has taken 130 businesses from idea to reality in just five years. Yet, I know we can do better because those founders weren’t taught they could be founders at their most impressionable stage.
I’m also a single mother — like so many student single-mothers who may be reading this — and there was an endless stream of voices telling me what my options were and the limitations I had to accept. If I had let statistics that I had no future to be proud of guide me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But real talk, if I had stopped at the ceiling of accomplishments that those optimistic about my future had set for me, then I wouldn’t be where I am today either. I was never told that I could own the business that would help my family thrive, but I did it anyway. Through the process of living beyond the expectations set for me, I became a serial entrepreneur who’s dedicated to raising that ceiling of possibility that I was made to believe was fixed and unmovable.
In our nation’s capital and in every state capital, our elected policymakers are debating, compromising, and putting into law the budget priorities that will define our children’s futures. I have an amendment that I want to offer to all their bills and proposals that is the most non-partisan of policies: invest in programs and education paths that teach young people that they can be the owners of the small, medium, and large businesses that are the backbone of our economy — no matter what path they choose to get there.
Make it the required mantra in every classroom: “You have OPTIONS! Go to college. Learn to code. Learn a trade. Get a 9-5. Create a 9-5 for someone else.” Then, make business ownership a career option for students starting in early education quizzes, career exploration classes, and surveys — let’s show them America values the entrepreneurial mindset. When we invite parents of our kids to classrooms to talk about their lives as doctors, lawyers, chefs, and manufacturers let’s also invite those who own those doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, restaurants, and factories.
Secretary Cardona, there is no better way to prepare the next generation of workers who will build our economy than to make sure they understand that they can own their future by owning a business.